impostor syndrome

or im路post路er syn路drome

[ im-pos-ter sin-drohm ]
/ 瑟m藞p蓲s t蓹r 藢s瑟n dro蕣m /
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noun Psychology.
anxiety or self-doubt that results from persistently undervaluing one鈥檚 competence and active role in achieving success, while falsely attributing one's accomplishments to luck or other external forces.
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Also called im路pos路tor phe路nom路e路non, im路post路er phe路nom路e路non [im-pos-ter fuh-nom-uh-non] /瑟m藞p蓲s t蓹r f蓹藢n蓲m 蓹藢n蓲n/ .

Origin of impostor syndrome

Coined in 1978 by Pauline Rose Clance (born 1938) and Suzanne Imes (born 1944), U.S. psychologists, in a psychology journal article 鈥淭he Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention鈥

Words nearby impostor syndrome

Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 漏 Random House, Inc. 2022


What is impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome is a psychological pattern of self-doubt in the face of evidence to the contrary鈥攍ike that voice in your head that tells you you’re not good enough. The phrase and concept is especially used in reference to women and members of minority groups who feel they’ve achieved undue or undeserving success in the workplace.

Where does impostor syndrome come from?

We can thank psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes for researching what they called impostor phenomenon in the 1970s. Their research focused on high-achieving women in the workplace鈥攚omen in powerful positions decorated with degrees, awards, and praise, but who still somehow felt like they were frauds, that their accomplishments were a matter of luck or professional generosity, not talent. They felt like impostors, or people who pretend to be something they are not, and their doubts about their competence was the syndrome.

Impostor syndrome, the specific phrase recorded by at least 1982, isn鈥檛 a formal psychiatric disorder, but its anxieties are very real and consequential. A person, for instance, might get a promotion or land a dream job they felt was a long shot, and may then constantly worry they are going to fail or be 鈥渆xposed鈥 as not good enough for the position. Some people actually start seeing their performance slip in some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy thanks all that psychological noise.

In 1985, Clance wrote The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the Fear that Haunts Your Success, a self-help digest of her research intended to guide people, especially women, through their self-doubt by explaining the psychological mechanics behind it. The text helped popularize impostor syndrome in mainstream culture鈥攁nd its emphasis on women keenly identified that minority and marginalized groups can be more at risk to feeling impostor syndrome, likely due to internalized cultural narratives where (white) men get to succeed based on merit.

Since the 1980s, impostor syndrome, often spelled imposter syndrome, has overtaken the older phrase impostor phenomenon. Data for the phrase take off in the 1990s, perhaps corresponding to growing diversity in leadership positions in the workplace鈥攁nd the concomitant challenges of people to make sense of that success. While impostor syndrome is most commonly discussed with respect to the workplace, it also affects other domains such as academics (e.g., women in science fields) and interpersonal relationships (e.g., mixed-weight romances).

How is impostor syndrome used in real life?

While it鈥檚 not a clinical condition, impostor syndrome is nevertheless widely regarded as a real phenomenon.

It鈥檚 regularly researched and written about for scientific publications as well as serious social commentary.

Impostor syndrome can serve as an ironic or self-deprecating joke on social media. It鈥檚 not uncommon to see comedic tweets based on the user鈥檚 own experience with imposter syndrome.

As a concept and phrase, impostor syndrome strongly connotes gender and racial dynamics, both in its popular associations and research concerns.

Some maintain that talking about imposter syndrome only in gender and racial terms just adds to the woes. They argue that feelings of inadequacy isn鈥檛 always a woman鈥檚 or minority person鈥檚 imposter syndrome telling them they鈥檙e not good enough. Rather, it鈥檚 that many environments are simply set up to unfairly and disproportionately reward men more than women or members of minority groups for the same work.

More examples of impostor syndrome:

鈥淭he closest thing I know to a cure for imposter syndrome is to realize that every creator you respect also suffers from it. / When you realize how ridiculous it is for them to feel that way about their work, keep that in mind when you feel that way about yours.鈥
鈥擛grantthethief, April 2018


This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term鈥檚 history, meaning, and usage.

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